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“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”—Shakespeare.
There is a certain class of so-called signs, that from long use have become so embedded in the every-day life of the people as to pass current with some as mere whimsical fancies, with others as possessing a real significance. At any rate, they crop out everywhere in the course of common conversation. Most of them have been handed down from former generations, while not a few exhale the strong aroma of the native soil itself.
Of this class of familiar signs or omens, affecting only the smaller and more casual happenings one may encounter from day to day, or from hour to hour, those only will be noticed which seem based on actual superstition. Many current weather proverbs accord so exactly with the observations of science as to exclude them from any such classification. They are simply the homely records of a simple folk, drawn from long experience of nature in all her moods. As even the prophecies of the Weather Bureau itself often fail of fulfilment, it is not to be wondered at if weather proverbs sometimes prove no better guide, especially when we consider that “all signs fail in a dry time.”
The following are a few examples selected from among some hundreds:—
When a cat races playfully about the house, it is a sign that the wind will rise.
It is a sign of rain if the cat washes her head behind her ears; of bad weather when Puss sits with her tail to the fire.
Spiders crawling on the wall denote rain.
If a dog is seen eating green grass it is a sign of coming wet weather.
Hang up a snake skin for rain.
If the grass should be thickly dotted in the morning with cobwebs of the ground spider, glistening with dew, expect rain. Some say it portends the exact opposite. This puts us in mind of Cato’s quaint saying that “two auguries cannot confront each other without laughing.”
If the kettle should boil dry, it is a sure sign of rain. Very earnestly said a certain respectable, middle-aged housewife to me: “Why, sir, sometimes you put twice as much water in the kettle without its boiling away.”
If the cattle go under trees when the weather looks threatening, there will be a shower. If they continue feeding, it will probably be a steady downpour.
A threatened storm will not begin, or the wind go down, until the turning of the tide to flood. Not only the people living along shore, but all sailors believe this.
Closely related to the above is the belief that a sick person will not die until ebb tide. When that goes out, the life goes with it. I have often heard this said in some seaports in Maine.
These popular notions, concerning the influence of the tides, be it said, have come down to us from a remote antiquity. The Pythagorean philosopher, indeed, stoutly affirmed that the ebbing and flowing of the sea was nothing less than the respiration of the world itself, which was supposed to be a living monster, alternately drawing in water, instead of air, and heaving it out again.
Again, an old salt, who had perhaps heard of Galileo’s theory, once tried to illustrate to me the movement of the tides by comparing it to that of a man turning over in bed, and dragging the bedclothes with him, his notion being that as the world turned round, the waters of the ocean were acted upon in a like manner.
To resume the catalogue:—
A bee was never caught in the rain—that is, if the bee scents rain, it keeps near the hive. If, on the contrary, it flies far, the day will be fair. The ancients believed this industrious little creature possessed of almost human intelligence.
When the squirrels lay in a greater store of nuts than usual, expect a cold winter.
If the November goose-bone be thick, so will the winter weather be unusually severe. This prediction appears as regularly as the return of the seasons.
Many meteors falling presage much snow.
“If it rains before seven,
It will clear before eleven.”
“You can tell before two.
What it’s going to do.”
There will be as many snow-storms in a winter as there are days remaining in the month after the first fall of snow.
Children are told, of the falling snow, that the old woman, up in the sky, is shaking her feather-bed.
High tides on the coast of Maine are considered a sign of rain.
When the muskrat builds his nest higher than usual, it is a sign of a wet spring, as this means high water in the ponds and streams.
“A winter fog
Will kill a dog,”
which is as much as to say that a thaw, with its usual accompaniments of fog and rain, is invariably productive of much sickness.
Winter thunder is to old folks death, and to young folks plunder.
“Sound, travelling far and wide,
A stormy day will betide.”
Do business with men when the wind is northwest—that signifies that a clear sky and bracing air are most conducive to alertness and energy; yet Hamlet says: “I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
That was certainly a pretty conceit, no matter if it has been lost sight of, that the sun always dances upon Easter morning.
One of the oldest of weather rhymes runs in this wise:—
“Evening gray and morning red,
Brings down rain on the traveller’s head;
Evening red and morning gray,
Sends the traveller on his way.”
Science having finally accepted what vulgar philosophy so long maintained, namely that the moon exerts an undoubted influence upon the tides of the sea, all the various popular beliefs concerning her influence upon the weather that have been wafted to us over, we know not how many centuries, find ready credence. If the mysterious luminary could perform one miracle, why not others? Thus reasoned the ignorant multitude.
The popular fallacy that the moon is made of “greene cheese,” as sung by Heywood, and repeated by that mad wag Butler, in “Hudibras,” may be considered obsolete, we suppose, but in our youth we have often heard this said, and, it is to be feared, half believed it.
Cutting the hair on the waxing of the moon, under the delusion that it will then grow better, is another such.
As preposterous as it may seem, our worthy ancestors, or some of them at least, firmly believed that the Man in the Moon was veritable flesh and blood.
In “Curious Myths,” Mr. Baring-Gould refers the genesis of this belief to the Book of Numbers.
An old Scotch rhyme runs thus:—
“A Saturday’s change and a Sunday’s prime,
Was nivver gude mune in nae man’s time.”
If the horns of the new moon are but slightly tipped downward, moderate rains may be looked for; if much tipped, expect a downpour. On the other hand, if the horns are evenly balanced, it is a sure sign of dry weather. Some one says in “Adam Bede,” “There’s no likelihood of a drop now an’ the moon lies like a boat there.” The popular notion throughout New England is that when the new moon is turned downward, it cannot hold water. Hence the familiar sayings of a wet or a dry moon.
If the Stormy Petrel (Mother Cary’s Chicken) is seen following in the wake of a ship at sea, all sailors know that a storm is brewing, and that it is time to make all snug on board. As touching this superstition, I find the following entry in the Rev. Richard Mather’s Journal: “This day, and two days before, we saw following ye ship a little bird, like a swallow, called a Petterill, which they say doth follow ships against foule weather.”
Therefore, in honest Jack’s eyes, to shoot one of these little wanderers of the deep, not only would invite calamity, but would instantly bring down a storm of indignation on the offender’s head. And why, indeed, should this state of mind in poor Jack be wondered at, when he hears so much about kraaken, mermaids, sea-serpents, and the like chimera, and when those who walk the quarter-deck readily lend themselves to the fostering of his delusions?
A mare’s tail in the morning is another sure presage of foul weather. This consists in a long, low-hanging streak of murky vapor, stretching across a wide space in the heavens, and looking for all the world like the trailing smoke of some ocean steamer, as is sometimes seen long before the steamer heaves in sight. The mare’s tail is really the black signal of the advancing storm, drawn with a smutty hand across the fair face of the heavens. Hence the legend,—
“Mackerel sky and mare’s tails
Make lofty ships carry low sails.”
If the hedgehog comes out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and sees his shadow, he goes back to sleep again, knowing that the winter is only half over. Hence the familiar prediction:—
“If Candlemas day is fair and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.”
The same thing is said of the bear, in Germany, as of the hedgehog or woodchuck.
The Germans say that the badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and if he finds snow on the ground, he walks abroad; but if the sun is shining, he draws back into his hole again. At any rate, the habits of this predatory little beast are considered next to infallible by most country-folk in New England.
A similar prediction carries this form: On Candlemas Day just so far as the sun shines in, just so far will the snow blow in.
“As far as the sun shines in on Candlemas Day
So far will the snow blow in before May:
As far as the snow blows in on Candlemas Day
So far will the sun shine in before May.”
From these time-honored prophecies is deduced the familiar warning:—
“Just half your wood and half your hay
Should be remaining on Candlemas Day.”
An old Californian predicted a dry season for the year 1899, because he had noticed that the rattlesnakes would not bite of late, a never failing sign of drought which few, we fancy, would feel inclined to put to the test.
An unusually cold winter is indicated by the greater thickness of apple skins, corn husks, and the like.
The direction from which the wind is blowing usually indicates what the weather will be for the day,—wet or dry, hot or cold,—but here is a rhymed prediction which puts all such prophecies to shame:
“The West wind always brings wet weather
The East wind wet and cold together,
The South wind surely brings us rain,
The North wind blows it back again.
If the sun in red should set,
The next day surely will be wet;
If the sun should set in gray,
The next will be a rainy day.”
This falls more strictly in line with many of the so-called signs which, like the old woman’s indigo, if good would either sink or swim, she really didn’t know which; or like the predictions of the old almanac makers, who so shrewdly foretold rain in April, and snow in December.
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